The Jackson Heights Plaza Is Growing on Some Local Merchants

Planters installed last week are adding a little bit of color to the 37th Road pedestrian plaza in Jackson Heights. Photo: Clarence Eckerson, Jr.

A package of enhancements and adjustments to the new pedestrian plaza on 37th Road in Jackson Heights — the object of a high-profile backlash from a group of local merchants this winter — is winning over some of the skeptics.

DOT has placed new planters and seating to spruce up the plaza and give it more color, while also adding parking and loading spaces and reversing the direction of traffic on a nearby block to improve access to the plaza, allaying some of the merchants’ fears.

The larger package of transportation changes related to the plaza had shown impressive benefits — shaving seven minutes off of local bus trips — and the new public space was already widely used. But recent tweaks have helped build a stronger consensus around the plaza, which proved to be the most controversial element of the plan.

City Council Member Daniel Dromm is a plaza supporter and has used his discretionary funds to pay for its upkeep. “DOT has stepped up to the plate,” he said of the dozen or so planters that arrived in the plaza last Thursday. “The place is looking much more attractive.”

More street furniture is set to be delivered this Friday, when tables and chairs will be delivered at the request of two local restaurant owners. Those business owners, who had previously aligned with the merchants leading the fight against the plaza, have disassociated from the opposition. “They have grown to see the benefits to their restaurants,” said Dromm.

The tweaks aren’t limited to the new pedestrian space between 73rd and 74th Street. One block to the east, DOT has changed the direction of 37th Road. Now, the street feeds into the plaza rather than away from it, easing merchant fears that the redesign of the neighborhood’s street network had made it harder for customers to access their stores.

On that same block, DOT replaced a bus layover area and striped bike lane with parking; the buses were moved a block away and the bike lane replaced with sharrows. According to Dromm, the addition of  these spots is more than enough to offset the removal of parking to make way for the plaza. “There’s actually more parking for the merchants now,” he said, estimating that there’s been a net increase of five parking spaces. Loading zones were also added around the corner for stores fronting the plaza.

Overall, the new traffic pattern appears popular in the neighborhood. At a town hall meeting held last night, ten or so plaza opponents held up signs and protested, but a much larger number cheered and clapped for the changes, reported Len Maniace, a vice president of the Jackson Heights Beautification Group. “There was opposition,” he said, “but there was significantly more support.”

“It was an overwhelming show of support for the plaza,” said Dromm. “It was just great.”

When the transportation plan for the neighborhood was first presented to the local community board last year, including rerouting two bus routes and making the one block of 37th Road car-free, it passed unanimously.

While some merchants are coming to embrace the plaza, the hard core of opposition shows no sign of being mollified by the modifications. “I don’t think they will be totally satisfied until the plaza is gone,” said Dromm, “and that’s not going to happen.”

In addition to speeding bus service, said Dromm, the plaza has had a marked impact on safety. The intersection at one end of the plaza, where 37th Road, 74th Street and Broadway all meet, was the most dangerous in Jackson Heights until last year. “Since the implementation of the traffic study, there hasn’t been one accident on the corner,” said Dromm. “That alone is reason to keep it.”

A more formal DOT evaluation will be ready next month, said Maniace, and will be presented to the community board.

With better weather around the corner, Maniace said he expects the plaza to become only more popular in the coming months among residents and merchants alike. “With the spring and summer coming up, there’s a real opportunity for increased business there,” he said. “They may end up needing even more tables and chairs.”